Feb. 24 2010 12:00 AM

Ice wines may be pricey, but they're a sweet treat

Photo courtesy of Sharon Kegerreis

It’s that time of year when the snow and frigid cold bring joy to the hearts of certain vintners in Germany, Michigan, New York, the Niagara escarpment region of southern Ontario, and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. It’s ice wine season — or Eiswein, if you are in Germany.

What is ice wine, some may ask? Frozen wine? A strange wine concoction made from ice? The latter is partially true.

In regions cold enough to reach Fahrenheit temperatures in the teens in December or January, some winemakers decide to leave portions of vineyards unharvested until the grapes freeze naturally on the vine. It is a risky decision. Between the fall harvest time in September or October, and the first prolonged hard freeze, any number of variables can turn a hanging grape crop into a disaster. Unfavorable weather conditions can cause rot and disease, or birds and other pests can decimate the crop. But for those grapes that survive, the gradual dehydration caused by long hang time leaves intensely sweet and concentrated fruit characterized by wonderful acidity.

Grapes for ice wine are hand-harvested while rock-hard. Water components of the grape juice stay frozen during the pressing process. Sugars, acids and other flavor components remain concentrated in the grape nectar, which ultimately will become ice wine. The process of pressing precious drops of juice from these icy gems can take days, and the fermentation can take weeks or even months.

But the payoff is worth the wait. So little juice comes from the clusters of a single vine that these wines are often bottled in 375 ml bottles, rather than the typical 750. The nectar in the bottles may have sugar levels approaching 40 percent, but high acids in a well-made ice wine keep everything in balance. And balance is what good winemaking is all about, whether a wine is bone-dry or intensely sweet.

Ice wine is served very cold in small wine glasses; one need only sip enough to coat the tongue, then just let that juice linger without swallowing as it fills the mouth with flavors such as honey, peach, apricot, honeysuckle or caramel. The sweetness lingers in viscous harmony with mouth-watering acids. It is a dessert unto itself, although it can also make an excellent pairing with semi-sweet chocolate, or even creamy cheeses. Just make sure the paired food isn’t sweeter than the ice wine. Black Star Farms’ 2007 A Capella Riesling Ice Wine was served at the 2009 White House Governors Dinner paired with huckleberry cobbler and caramel ice cream. Mmmmm.

Ice wine can be made from any grape variety, but traditionally it shines with varieties such as Riesling, Vidal, Gewrztraminer, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Gris (a.k.a. Pinot Grigio). Germany is the traditional home of fine ice wine, but climate conditions in the regions mentioned above are ideal as well, and world-class ice wines are now made in each region.

Michigan wineries producing ice wine include 45 North, Bel Lago, Black Star Farms (2002 State Champ), Bowers Harbor, Brys Estate (2008 State Champ), Chateau Chantal, Chateau Grand Traverse (2007 State Champ), Cherry Creek, Domaine Berrien Cellars, Fenn Valley (2009 State Champ), Free Run Cellars , Lawton Ridge, Left Foot Charley, Lemon Creek, Longview, Mackinaw Trail, Peninsula Cellars, Pentamere, Sandhill Crane, Tabor Hill and Warner.

Due to the high risk and laborintensive harvest, ice wines are typically limited in supply and have a high-end price tag. So, if shelling out the bucks for an ice wine isn’t in the budget at the moment, consider a wine labeled “late harvest,” and if you see the word “botrytis” on the label, it’s a bonus for complexity and concentration.

But that’s another column.

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly.)